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caption: A sign let's people know to check in at the Box Office for a Covid-19 vaccine, on Monday, February 1, 2021, at a new vaccination site at the ShoWare Center in Kent. Six days a week, 500 doses per day will be administered at the site.
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A sign let's people know to check in at the Box Office for a Covid-19 vaccine, on Monday, February 1, 2021, at a new vaccination site at the ShoWare Center in Kent. Six days a week, 500 doses per day will be administered at the site.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

In Darwinian vaccine system, helpers step to the front

There are more than 1,000 approved vaccine providers in Washington state, using more than 100 different appointment systems. If you can’t find an appointment at first, you might have to keep going back again and again to try to find that elusive open slot.

If you are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine and you have been trying to get one, you might have discovered that it’s not easy. Vaccines are in very short supply right now, and making an appointment is tough.

People complain of spending hours on their computers trying to navigate the system.

But good news! People in the community are stepping forward to help. Here are two efforts now underway.

Finding help on Facebook

Sharla is a mom in Kirkland who has multiple health conditions that make her vulnerable to the virus. So she has been paying very close attention to how the people access the vaccine.

“It’s survival of the fittest. It's who can type the fastest, who can click the fastest,” she said.

(We are not using Sharla's last name because since she launched her project, she has been getting hate mail from anti-vaxxers.)

When relatives tried to find appointments, Sharla saw the problems up close.

“My own mother-in-law had to call a phone line 95 times before she could get my father-in-law vaccinations. That's just not OK, it's not OK,” she said.

Sharla and her brother Steve have a history of volunteerism, particularly in communities of color, which have been hard hit by the virus and where access issues are even more pronounced.

caption: Siblings Steve and Sharla, pictured here pre-COVID, created the Facebook group Find a COVID Shot WA.
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Siblings Steve and Sharla, pictured here pre-COVID, created the Facebook group Find a COVID Shot WA.
Credit: Steve and Sharla

So about 10 days ago, the siblings launched a Facebook group, Find a COVID Shot WA. They chose the platform because they already had experience as administrators and moderators of Facebook groups, so it was quick and easy, she said.

Here’s how the group works. If someone is looking for a vaccine and happens upon some rare open appointments, they post the link to the Facebook page and then make an announcement to community members.

Because of the shortage of vaccines, appointments are literally snatched up in minutes, so it gives people a heads up.

“I can't search all these websites that are available; 100 plus websites that are linked to on the Department of Health website, I can't monitor those all the time,” Steve said.

The group started just over a week ago. They now have more than 13,000 members, and they say they have helped thousands of people find appointments.

Sharla says she hasn’t slept much since it launched, but it has been the best week of her life.

“People...have broken down in tears. They've been searching for three weeks for a vaccine and haven't got an appointment and we get them appointment in sometimes five minutes, and they're like, how did you do this? And it's just the power of humanity. I feel like it's been kind of a magical experience,” she said.

Using technology like a ticket scalper

caption: Technologists meet to brainstorm solutions to the state's vaccine appointment woes. Clockwise, from upper left: George Hu, Dmitry Grigorenko, Dan Morris, Kirsten Andrews, Darren Lim, and Mike Afanasev
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Technologists meet to brainstorm solutions to the state's vaccine appointment woes. Clockwise, from upper left: George Hu, Dmitry Grigorenko, Dan Morris, Kirsten Andrews, Darren Lim, and Mike Afanasev
Credit: George Hu

George Hu is an ex-Microsoft developer who now teaches computer science classes in college. He had a similar terrible encounter with the vaccine system with his aging parents.

With so many different appointment systems, it’s like a game of “whack-a-mole where there’s 200 different holes. And you don’t even know if the mole is going to show his face,” Hu said.

Hu reasoned that there should be a simple technological solution to the problem. All you need is a program that scrapes data from a number of websites of vaccine providers and brings it up in one central place. It’s not a complicated technology, he said, and it’s one that anyone who buys concert tickets might be familiar with.

“What we need for this is those ticket scalpers. We need those bots to go find me the appointments,” Hu said. “The technology is out there. We just want to use that for good for once.”

So Hu contacted Darren Lim, a sophomore at MIT who he mentors. When he was in high school, Lim had already worked on a similar project scraping Lake Washington School District’s many websites so he could get his grades faster.

Last weekend, the two came up with a prototype that could work with several large appointment systems, including Costco's and QFC's. They felt it had a lot of promise, so Hu started shopping it around to his friends at Microsoft.

“And they all had this really surprising response, which was: Is this really a problem? And is this really useful? And that's because none of them had gone and actually tried to get an appointment,” Hu said.

The website COVID WA went live on February 10. It shows which providers in Washington state have vaccines available, and then allows you to click through to their websites to make an appointment.

The development team includes more than two dozen engineers and other technologists, including several who are overseas. They in particular are aware of the ways other countries have better handled the vaccine rollout.

Dan Morris, a software engineer at Microsoft, is from the UK. He says the US healthcare system is great, but fragmented.

“When you have a crisis, such as this that requires a real conglomeration of folks to fight it, you need something to bring that together. And...in other countries like in the United Kingdom, we have one health service, which has its disadvantages, of course. But in this case, it's just one point, it's one distribution center,” he said.

The group is trying to get the state’s Department of Health to look at their technology, but hasn't been able to arrange a meeting. According to a Department of Health official, the state is working with Microsoft on a similar technical fix, but no details were available.

Still, George Hu is confident that with all of these minds concentrated on solving the problem, things will get better.

“In past wars, Americans have always been able to contribute somehow, whether it's a blood drive or scrap metal. This is kind of like the tech guys scrap metal drive," he said. He's hoping that lots of people who know how to write code will join the effort.

"Collect your little bit of data and contribute to this pile and we can solve this problem," he said.